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Hansbrough fighting for his career

Former Pacers lottery pick making most of D-League opportunity

Tyler Hansbrough has averaged a double-double in seven D-League games. (Fort Wayne Mad Ants photo)

Tyler Hansbrough is in a very different place these days.

Different, as in the middle seat in coach on connecting commercial flights.

Different, as in a hotel room he pays for when his team hits the road for games in places including Canton, El Segundo, and Prescott Valley.

Different, as in the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the D-League.

Hansbrough entered the NBA from the top, one of the most decorated players in college basketball history coming off a national championship with North Carolina, a 2009 lottery pick expected to be a franchise cornerstone. 

If he is to return, it will be from an entirely different direction, in an entirely different role.

Without a job since the Hornets chose not to re-sign him after last season, Hansbrough faced a crossroads at age 31: finish out his career in Europe, where the money would be better but the NBA opportunity distant, or bite the bullet and go the D-League route, where the money is nominal but the exposure to NBA coaches and scouts constant.

He not only chose the D-League, he chose Fort Wayne, so tantalizingly close to his original professional home. 

“I feel like I am an NBA player. I have confidence in my game. I feel like I can go out there and guard a lot of people and get up and down,” Hansbrough said. “For me, I don’t really look at it as, ‘Gosh, how did this happen?’ I look at it as an opportunity to go out here and prove to people I’m still an NBA player, still can get up and down the court, still can do the things everyone wants me to do. That’s the way I’m looking at this. 

“In the NBA, nothing’s guaranteed. There’s a lot of good players that probably could play in the NBA that aren’t right now. I’m trying to come out here and prove I still belong.”

So far, so good. 

In his first seven games with the Mad Ants, six on the road, Hansbrough has averaged 12.7 points, 11.0 rebounds and, 28.8 minutes. In addition to the highest rebounding average on the roster, he’s attempting a team-best 6.9 free throws. 

The most impressive stat to coach Steve Gansey is the minutes Hansbrough has been able to play, which have been downright stunning for a guy who went nearly 11 months without an organized game.

“As a coach, you worry about a guy who hasn’t played organized basketball all year,” Gansey said. “I heard Tyler was practicing with UNC because he was living in Chapel Hill but you always worry about the conditioning and what his body looks like. But he looks unbelievable. I knew he was lifting, I figured he’d be bigger and stronger but he’s lean. He’s still got arms on him. He’s in really good shape. The first game he played 17 minutes and it didn’t look like he was gassed at all. Second game, he played 37 minutes and played really well. He’s in phenomenal shape.”

He also is attacking this job the way he has attacked all the others -- straight ahead, full throttle. Although he obviously and admittedly was frustrated by the lack of NBA interest, Hansbrough hasn’t let it get to him. He is showing the young Mad Ants what it is to be a professional, setting an example they need to see.

“They see the way Tyler presents himself in practice and in games,” Gansey said. “He’s a professional. He comes to work every single day, doesn’t half-ass anything in any drill. He’s gotten in a couple scuffles already, but that’s just the way he plays. He plays hard and doesn’t let anybody push him around. It’s great that our young guys see that because you need to come and play with toughness every single night.

“He’s been great. You don’t see a lot of guys like him that have been in the league seven years have a good attitude and are excited about being on two different flights sitting in the middle seat on a commercial flight. He hasn’t complained one time. The per diem’s different, the hotels are different. He’s actually paying for his own hotel room right now while we’re on the road. It just tells you he’s invested in our success and he wants to help us win and get to the playoffs. He’s just being a real pro right now about every day and trying to prove to the entire league, not just the Pacers, that he’s in great shape and he can help an NBA club win.”

But can he, still? Or has the game evolved away from him?

Not that long ago, Hansbrough was part of a young nucleus that included Paul George, Lance Stephenson, Roy Hibbert, Darren Collison, Brandon Rush and Josh McRoberts. In his second season, he averaged 11.0 points and 5.2 rebounds, starting 29 games, as Frank Vogel replaced Jim O’Brien and the Pacers finished strong to reach the 2011 playoffs. 

David West and George Hill came aboard the following season, the Pacers reached the second round, and then advanced to the conference finals in 2012-13 with both Hansbrough brothers on the roster (Ben was a backup guard). But with West entrenched as the starter, the Pacers turned to Chris Copeland in free agency, thus signaling their preference for a stretch-four over the more traditional power player, and Hansbrough’s days in Indy were over.

He spent two years as a backup in Toronto, then barely left the bench last season in Charlotte. 

“He brings a lot to a team,” said Charlotte coach Steve Clifford. “He’s like a lot of other guys that, I don’t want to say older, but he’s at the end of his career, and what happens is a team makes a decision, just like we did, about do you want to have a veteran guy who can play when needed, which he did for us last year and did a good job, adds to culture, which he’s terrific to have around? Or do you want to develop younger players? And that’s the tough one. 

“Guys like him, then it becomes a kind of numbers game about how many guys are developing younger players and I’ll be honest, he’s at a position where I think more teams are looking to develop younger guys because they’re harder to find. That puts him in a tough spot. He’s almost a center now, the way the league goes. If you can’t shoot threes at the four spot, the way the game is going, and you can’t guard  -- not only do you have to be able to play there, if you want to play every night, when they go (C.J.) Miles at the four you’ve got to be able to guard him or you can’t play all the time. That’s the other part of it.”

Hansbrough is well aware of the trend, knows he has never been and will never be a 3-point shooter -- he attempted just 22 in seven seasons, making three. But he also looks at teams like the Pacers, sees how they consistently get pounded on the boards, how they are routinely pushed around physically, and knows there is still a place for an old-school head-banger.

Or should be.

“Playing hard is a skill, I think, because not everyone does it,” Gansey said. “There’s a lot of guys that don’t have high motors, that don’t bring it every single night and Tyler’s one of those guys that does bring it every single night. I think there’s always room for a player like Tyler who’s a great teammate and just goes to work every single day. It’s not punching a time clock. He wants to get better, he wants the team to get better and it’s been a joy to have him around our young guys to see him go about his every day.”

While his first NBA team was busy beating his last 98-77 in the palatial expanse of Bankers Life Fieldhouse Wednesday night, Hansbrough was racking up 25 points and 12 rebounds as the Mad Ants pulled out a one-point win over the Northern Arizona Suns before 1,763 fans in the Prescott Valley Event Center.

Then it was back to the coach seat on the commercial flight, back to the reality of his current team and circumstance.

“It’s fair to say this isn’t a vacation for me,” Hansbrough said. “I knew I wasn’t coming in here to stay in nice places and lay out in the sun. I came here to play basketball, work, work on my game and get up and down the court.

“For me, personally, I don’t look at it as a negative. Actually, it’s a good thing. I feel like right now this is one of the only opportunities I have to play 25, 30 minutes a night, so it’s good for me. It’s good for me to get the feel from a basketball perspective and I’m going against somebody, I’m guarding somebody and I’m not just going into a gym, working out and shooting.”

For Hansbrough, it’s all about making sure there is a next team. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be the one a couple of hours down I-69. 

Now that would be different.

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